Should they stay or should they go

In this week's Poet's Notebook, America's toxic culture inspires a little wanderlust.

click to enlarge Should they stay or should they go
Jeanne Meinke

In 1972 we drove up a series of picturesque hills between the majestic Swiss Alps and the town of Montreux overlooking Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). We stopped at a handsome prep school for international students, where I applied for a teaching job: We wanted to leave America.

Well, we were in a snit about the neverending Vietnam War (we’d marched against it many times back in St. Petersburg, dragging our poor youngsters along with us, waving little PEACE signs in the Florida heat). President Nixon had brought home some soldiers but was upping the Vietnam bombing campaign to include Laos and Cambodia. Fortunately, the prep school had no openings that year, but they asked me to keep in touch, and work harder on my French.

This halfhearted attempt to become immigrants has come back with some force under the stifling shadow of President Trump. We’re not thinking of leaving now. Everyone makes mistakes, and so does every country. But what worries us is this: Suppose Trump gets reelected in 2020? A traveling friend reports lots of Trump T-shirts polluting the airports in the Midwest. Maybe in the next few years the economy will still be strong, and maybe he won’t declare war on anyone, and stop insulting our friends and hugging our enemies. That won’t matter. To cut to the chase, Trump is an overtly sexist racist windbag addicted to lying, with a clear preference for fascist leaders; and the idea of dying during a Trump presidency seems ignoble, if not unendurable. And it’s not just him. Have all our hopes and beliefs in American education, with which we’ve been in a small way involved for our entire lives, come to this? A handful of our patriotic friends have died during the past two years, and we thought, each time: how sad for them.

In 2020 Jeanne and I won’t be at the usual age to pack up and leave for another country. But why not? We don’t want to travel; we just want to breathe psychically healthier air, and where we might go makes for lively conversation as we sip our nightcaps.

Montreal comes immediately to mind, because it’s close, we like it, we could work on our French, and we admire Justin Trudeau. We even know where to get great bagels (Fairmont Bagel Bakery in the Mile End neighborhood). On the other hand, we’d probably freeze to death during our first winter. (We’ve visited friends who, because of Vietnam and Iraq, have successfully emigrated to Mexico and Costa Rica, but we seem allergic to Spanish.)

We know London well, and Samuel Johnson’s observation still holds true: “Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Its pub/theatre/museum mix is hard to beat, and the language is similar to ours, a big help. But as we’d be leaving because of politics, London may be the wrong place to go. The problems they’re facing with Brexit might make England as socially and politically toxic as America.

Two other cites we’ve enjoyed living in are Warsaw and Neuchâtel, but Poland‘s President Andrzej Duda and his PiS (Law & Justice) Party aren’t much better than Donald Trump; and though we love Neuchâtel, Switzerland — unlike Poland — is too expensive for our daily budget.

That leaves Paris. (“We’ll always have Paris,” as Rick said to Ilsa.) Mangling the language daily would be good exercise for our brains, we still know a few friends there, we trust Emmanuel Macron, and the food’s wonderful. In addition, now and then we could catch the early morning train at the Gare de Lyon and ride through the Jura Mountains to Neuchâtel in time for lunch beneath the elfin towers of Place Pury. This is no time to be cheapskates!

Well, chers amis, of course we’d prefer to stay nearer to you all, and that’s what we’ll probably do; but it’s good to be ready. As Edgar says at the sad (SAD!) end of King Lear, “Men must endure/Their going hence even as their coming hither./Ripeness is all. Come on.”

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